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Menlo Park won't disclose findings of investigation into city's gymnastics program

Investigator Nikki Hall may need one month for misconduct review

The investigation into allegations of a hostile workplace within Menlo Park's gymnastics program will likely take at least one month, but however long it takes, the public will remain in the dark as to the findings.

"I am advised that it will likely be at least one month before the investigation is completed given the number of witnesses to be interviewed," City Attorney Bill McClure said. "The investigative findings are not subject to public disclosure because the investigation relates to confidential personnel matters and is also an attorney-client privileged investigation."

Nikki Hall, the San Francisco-based attorney hired by Menlo Park to conduct the review, has extensive experience representing public sector employers and investigating workplace misconduct, according to her biography. She directed the Almanac's questions to the city attorney.

Menlo Park hired her weeks after a popular gymnastics instructor, Michelle Sutton, was fired and allegations of a toxic workplace environment within the program arose.

City Manager Alex McIntyre had initially said that he had reviewed the circumstances of the firing to his satisfaction. However, his review didn't encompass talking to instructors who said that a gymnastics program supervisor allegedly bullied and harassed staff, including Ms. Sutton.

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Ms. Sutton had asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a harassment complaint against supervisor Karen Mihalek the week before she was fired. However, the instructor said she was told that a parent's complaint led to her termination on Feb. 12. The complaint, sent to program management and to the City Council's public email log on Jan. 30, described the instructor as unprofessional in how she had asked the parent to step away during a child-only class.

The Almanac reviewed Ms. Sutton's personnel file at the city and found no documentation of any reprimands or other performance issues. However, Menlo Park isn't legally required to document disciplinary actions for at-will employees such as Ms. Sutton, although many employers do as a safeguard.

Another instructor, Chris Ortez, quit in protest over the firing and later told the city manager and the council that Ms. Mihalek held "none-too-discreet contempt" for Ms. Sutton and reportedly had a history of complaints filed by at least two female staff members "who have been harassed, intimidated, and/or otherwise bullied by her."

Asked why the city hired an independent investigator, Mr. McClure said that information presented to the council by the former instructors triggered the decision, and that that was the first time the city had been made aware of the specific allegations.

Ms. Sutton told the Almanac that the day she was fired, she got a letter from the city's human resources director that acknowledged the city was aware that she had wanted to file a harassment complaint and asked her to call to discuss it. Rather than responding, she decided to speak to an attorney first.

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"I was in the process of filing a complaint, but I did not have an opportunity to follow through with the process because of the termination," Ms. Sutton said. "As a result, it was unclear whether any contact made after the fact was sufficiently independent from the termination, and the events (or) motivations leading to my dismissal."

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Menlo Park won't disclose findings of investigation into city's gymnastics program

Investigator Nikki Hall may need one month for misconduct review

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Wed, Mar 27, 2013, 11:36 am

The investigation into allegations of a hostile workplace within Menlo Park's gymnastics program will likely take at least one month, but however long it takes, the public will remain in the dark as to the findings.

"I am advised that it will likely be at least one month before the investigation is completed given the number of witnesses to be interviewed," City Attorney Bill McClure said. "The investigative findings are not subject to public disclosure because the investigation relates to confidential personnel matters and is also an attorney-client privileged investigation."

Nikki Hall, the San Francisco-based attorney hired by Menlo Park to conduct the review, has extensive experience representing public sector employers and investigating workplace misconduct, according to her biography. She directed the Almanac's questions to the city attorney.

Menlo Park hired her weeks after a popular gymnastics instructor, Michelle Sutton, was fired and allegations of a toxic workplace environment within the program arose.

City Manager Alex McIntyre had initially said that he had reviewed the circumstances of the firing to his satisfaction. However, his review didn't encompass talking to instructors who said that a gymnastics program supervisor allegedly bullied and harassed staff, including Ms. Sutton.

Ms. Sutton had asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a harassment complaint against supervisor Karen Mihalek the week before she was fired. However, the instructor said she was told that a parent's complaint led to her termination on Feb. 12. The complaint, sent to program management and to the City Council's public email log on Jan. 30, described the instructor as unprofessional in how she had asked the parent to step away during a child-only class.

The Almanac reviewed Ms. Sutton's personnel file at the city and found no documentation of any reprimands or other performance issues. However, Menlo Park isn't legally required to document disciplinary actions for at-will employees such as Ms. Sutton, although many employers do as a safeguard.

Another instructor, Chris Ortez, quit in protest over the firing and later told the city manager and the council that Ms. Mihalek held "none-too-discreet contempt" for Ms. Sutton and reportedly had a history of complaints filed by at least two female staff members "who have been harassed, intimidated, and/or otherwise bullied by her."

Asked why the city hired an independent investigator, Mr. McClure said that information presented to the council by the former instructors triggered the decision, and that that was the first time the city had been made aware of the specific allegations.

Ms. Sutton told the Almanac that the day she was fired, she got a letter from the city's human resources director that acknowledged the city was aware that she had wanted to file a harassment complaint and asked her to call to discuss it. Rather than responding, she decided to speak to an attorney first.

"I was in the process of filing a complaint, but I did not have an opportunity to follow through with the process because of the termination," Ms. Sutton said. "As a result, it was unclear whether any contact made after the fact was sufficiently independent from the termination, and the events (or) motivations leading to my dismissal."

Comments

CITIZEN GARRY
Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:14 am
CITIZEN GARRY, Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 28, 2013 at 9:14 am
Like this comment

They should investigate the MP City Council and the city's staff !!! This whole episode should have never happened..The next thing you know, the council will vote to put a Rite-Aid drug store in where the GMC dealership was. All they are doing is diluting the dollars people spend
and the sales tax collected, there is no new revenues coming. How about filing up the 10-12
empty store fronts on Santa Cruz ? That's new business & sales tax money, unless of course
it's another pet store !


Citizen Kane
another community
on Mar 28, 2013 at 10:10 am
Citizen Kane, another community
on Mar 28, 2013 at 10:10 am
Like this comment

The city council's role is to hire the city manager, other that that, the hiring and firing of city employees is outside the scope of the city council.


Ear to the Ground
Menlo Park: other
on Mar 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm
Ear to the Ground, Menlo Park: other
on Mar 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm
Like this comment

The City of Menlo Park needs to over-haul its hiring and firing practices, including its sites in Belle Haven where the next big ruckus just may come from.


A friend
Menlo Park: other
on Mar 30, 2013 at 9:31 am
A friend, Menlo Park: other
on Mar 30, 2013 at 9:31 am
Like this comment

Who is running the HR dept for the City and neglecting to train management on the professional way to deal with staff? Some major lapses in judgment and disregard for the law here. Doesn't matter if the employee was a temp or not, HUMAN Resources needs to get to work to better serve the City staff and City programs.


Menlo Voter
Menlo Park: other
on Mar 30, 2013 at 5:10 pm
Menlo Voter, Menlo Park: other
on Mar 30, 2013 at 5:10 pm
Like this comment

The city's HR Director is Gina Donnelly.


More investigations?
Menlo Park: other
on Apr 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm
More investigations?, Menlo Park: other
on Apr 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm
Like this comment

Heard though the grapevine that there is another on going investigation at the MCC amid numerous claims of discrimination and harassment. Almanac reporters on the story yet?


More investigations?
Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Apr 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm
More investigations?, Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Apr 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm
Like this comment

PS
The City attorney neglected to disclose that in the event that there is a lawsuit, the information gathered during the investigation will be made public. And it might become public before then under FOIA. Mr McClure also neglected to check the personnel files of City managers, this is NOT the first time that the City became aware of specific allegations against the supervisor(s) who fired Michelle Sutton. Interesting how the facts change to suit the City's needs.


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